Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Four Chord Sermon

American Sign Language for "Boring"

"All the greatest hits from the past 40 years just use four chords. Same four chords for every song. It's dead simple to write a pop hit."

That's the introduction to the "Four Chord Song" by Australian comedy band Axis of Awesome. The YouTube video, hilarious and now viral, is the band playing through snatches of 40 pop hits using the same four chords. (You can see the video here. Note there is some occasional rough language.) In case you're wondering the chords are E, B, C#m, A.  Some of the songs are transposed from their original key, but the point is that all of them are built on the identical chord progression. People who know music tell me it's called a "I V vi IV harmonic cadence".

This has been running through my head recently as I hit the four-year mark as a parish minister after spending most of my vocational ministry working with college students. Campus ministry follows the rhythm of the academic year which means my preaching and teaching schedule had lots of breaks. Factor in a campus minister's "congregation" is in constant flux so after four years you have complete turnover.

Not so now. Which partly explains why I'm dwelling on this. I stand up in front of my congregation dead certain they've picked up what my transient students likely didn't. I'm pretty much using the same four chords every sermon.

A few years back the rector of an Episcopal Church in Michigan was suspended 90 days for preaching sermons he purchased from an online service. It caught the attention of the New York Times and picked up by National Public Radio on their afternoon show "All Things Considered". Host Robert Siegel interviewed a faculty member of Harvard Divinity School to discuss plagiarism in the pulpit. What struck me most about the exchange was Siegel's obvious astonishment that anyone would be expected to speak to the same people on a weekly basis and not lean on "common" (read that: unattributed) sources. Siegel asked, "Just how original can a clergyman really be year after year, week after week?"

It ain't easy Bob. Trust me.

Yes, there is an essential simplicity to a Christian sermon. In the first century the church in Corinth was navigating through the flotsam and jetsam of secular philosophies in current vogue - most of which found their allure in the appearance of deep complexity. St. Paul reminded them, "I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified." He later defines the staple of preaching, "We preach Christ crucified." This is not an argument for anti-intellectualism or mind-numbing banality from the pulpit but rather a consistent focus that transcends and transforms human philosophy. Preaching that does not present Christ is not in any coherent sense Christian preaching.

To preach the gospel is to see the harmonic cadence that I'm supposed to stick to in every sermon. A fixed, axiological demonstration of Jesus as found in Scripture. Charles Spurgeon  is correct, "However grand the language it will be merely much-ado-about-nothing if Christ be not there."

So in this sense I am quite content to remain faithfully derivative, stock and old school in my preaching.

The challenge is that the very Scriptures I preach Jesus from deny me the tempting option of rote reductionism in sermons. Jesus and Paul demonstrate great care in varying tone, timbre and language when in changing cultural contexts. As Lesslie Newbigin puts it, "Every statement of the gospel in words is conditioned by the culture of which those words are a part." So ignoring the cultural vagaries of my hearers is more than a bad idea.

The Westminster Larger Catechism is part of the doctrinal standards of my church. On preaching it instructs preachers to apply themselves "to the necessities and capacities of the hearers." And apparently one those capacities is "do not bore me." My Australian friends would likely say, "Yanks just want to be entertained." That's not exactly it. As a preacher Tim Keller wows more than most and a less entertaining man is hard to imagine. This goes beyond the issue of standing in the shadows of celebrity preachers (which I've already written about.) It's about a deep, abiding cultural context that I'm acutely aware of because I'm so neck-deep in it.

Nicholas Carr holds degrees from Harvard University and Dartmouth College and is the former executive editor of the Harvard Business Review. In 2008 his essay, "Is Google Making Us Stupid" appeared in the Atlantic Monthly. He followed that up with the book, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. He writes,
"Over the past few years I've had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry...I'm not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I'm reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument and I'd spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That's rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I'm always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle."
Carr is not a Luddite or nostalgic for simpler times. He's simply observing what I see in my experience, the world I live in and the people I serve and preach to. I'd encourage you to read the essay for his arguments (I started the book but I got fidgety and bored...). The crux is that the speed and volume of information (reliable or not) and our pervasive dependence on networking technology is reordering the way we think and even the physiology of our brains. One of its symptoms? Jeremy Loadman notes, "As flows of information increase so too does our need to keep logging on and looking. Hence, our anxiousness when we can't look." Go to a movie and notice the sea of lit smart phone screens among people who will later tell you they loved the film.

I'm preaching to people just like me. Fidgety and easily bored. So maybe my Four Chord Fear isn't that I'm not being creative enough but just knowing one more obstacle in front of me to be faithful to my task and dependent on the work of God. My hope is the same as Newbiggin's:
It can happen that, in the mysterious providence of God, a word spoken comes with the kind of power of the word that was spoken to Saul on the road to Damascus.  Perhaps it is as sudden and cataclysmic as that.  Or perhaps it is the last piece that suddenly causes the pattern to make sense, the last experience of a long series that tips the scales decisively.  However, that may be, it causes the hearer to stop, turn around, and go in a new direction, to accept Jesus as his Lord, Guide, and Savior.
If it was less than 140 characters, I would tweet that.


  1. Enjoyed this Tom! As a former teacher, I also sympathize with what they face in classrooms today where their students have never known life-before-The Internet. Quite the double-edged sword!